Global Policy Forum

UN Defies West in Vote for Human Rights Council


Thalif Deen

Inter Press Service
May 9, 2006

The 191-member General Assembly, the collective voice of the international community at the United Nations, brushed aside both U.S. and Western criticisms to elect China, Russia and Cuba to the newly-created Human Rights Council. All three countries -- along with Iran -- were castigated by Western nations, as well as by non-governmental organisations (NGOs), as "human rights violators" who should be kept out of the new Council.

Last week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch also singled out three additional countries -- Azerbaijan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia -- as failing to protect human rights and therefore unworthy of membership. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders, which included Tunisia on its list of human rights violators, said these countries also "violated freedom of expression and human rights on a massive scale".

But after a secret ballot in the General Assembly Tuesday, seven of the eight countries were elected to the Council -- much to the disappointment of Western nations and human rights organisations. The only exception was Iran, which failed to muster the necessary votes -- receiving only 58 out of the required minimum of 96. A total of 63 candidates vied for 47 seats in the Council.

Asked to comment about the election of countries considered human rights abusers, General Assembly President Jan Eliasson told reporters Tuesday: "I would not mention any of the member states (by name). I would want you, though, to also look at the list of the candidates for the Human Rights Council -- the countries that decided to run, and the countries that decided not to run."

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, told reporters last week that at least 11 countries described as perennial human rights violators -- including Zimbabwe, Syria, North Korea, Libya, Nepal, Belarus, Myanmar (Burma) and Sudan -- chose not to run, primarily because of new requirements.

One of the requirements was a periodic review of the human rights record of all Council members, which was not mandatory for membership in the outgoing much-criticised Human Rights Commission. Eliasson said that all members of the Human Rights Council will have their records on human rights reviewed, "and that they have to live up to the pledges and commitments that they made during the campaign", he said.

Among the countries that decided to skip the elections was the United States, which has been criticised for human rights abuses of prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad and at the U.S.-run detention facility in Guantanamo Bay Cuba, where terror suspects are being held. The administration of President George W. Bush has also come under fire for justifying violations of the rule of law and international conventions in the name of fighting terrorism.

"The new Council faces a huge set of tasks, with human rights violations on the rise in so many parts of the world. No country has a perfect record of defending human rights and human rights norms," Phyllis Bennis, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute of Policy Studies, told IPS. But the combination of members of the new Council looks like a pretty good representative sampling of global governments -- some with a long history of strong commitment to human rights such as Canada; some with a recent commitment strengthened by earlier years of repression such as South Africa, Brazil, or Germany; still others whose current human rights record remains seriously flawed, such as Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Russia or Pakistan, she said.

"The agreement that all members of the Council will themselves be subject to serious investigation of their own human rights record bodes well for a Council that will be taken seriously by the international community as a whole," said Bennis, author of "Challenging Empire: How People, Governments, and the U.N. Defy U.S. Power". The real challenge now facing the Council lies in the willingness of its members to stand up to political pressures from powerful governments and other forces outside the Council, she noted. "If it can manage that, perhaps it will succeed in its broader mandate of making the protection of human rights an equal component of the U.N.'s work -- equivalent in all ways to peace, security and development," Bennis said.

Of the countries under a cloud, Tunisia garnered 171 of the 191 votes in the General Assembly, Pakistan 149, China 146, Russia 137, Cuba 135 and Saudi Arabia 126 votes.

The elections for the Human Rights Council were also viewed by some diplomats as a political barometre for the proposed expansion of the U.N. Security Council: a proposal that is currently in limbo because of sharp division among member states. All four countries aspiring for permanent seats in the Security Council -- India, Brazil, Japan and Germany -- were elected to the Human Rights Council. Of the four, India received the largest number of votes on Tuesday: 173 compared with Brazil (165), Japan (158) and Germany (154).

A Third World diplomat told IPS: "The vote on the Human Rights Council is not exactly the same as a vote on the Security Council expansion issue." But the voting outcome gives "a fairly realistic indication" of how these countries will probably fare should there be a vote on Security Council expansion, he added.

James A. Paul, executive director of the New York-based Global Policy Forum, has a different take on the issue. "I don't think this is good reasoning, as it assumes that votes would be dictated by the same rationale in both cases. Instead, I think that member states are capable of making distinctions between candidacy for a permanent seat and candidacy for a short-term seat on the Human Rights Council," he told IPS. The states that are aspirants to permanent seats are not among the serious human rights violators and at the same time they are influential, he said. "So members that would fiercely oppose them as permanent members might well vote for them as effective members of the Human Rights Council. It would be a shame if some confuse the two," Paul added.

"Anyway, the race for permanent seats is over, finished and dead. No one should be wondering whether this corpse will rise again from the grave. It's time to start thinking about other, more creative ways of improving the representation on the Security Council," Paul added.

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